Friday, June 09, 2006

Letter from London 6th June 2006

For the Bahrain Tribune"

Shock horror in leafy London suburb – our neighbours are flying two red-crossed England flags from the windows of their car! My wife, who has this disarming habit of finding good in anybody, says that it must be for the children (they have two small boys). But in reality such things are not really done in the better post codes. The English class system of norms exists today as much as it ever did and (frankly my dear) the overt display of the cross of St George from your car is undoubtedly infra dig. Mind you it gives the chaps in the saloon bars or at the golf club another weapon against the great unwashed: “It’s the bloody white vans that always fly the things” a large G&T said to me at my local. “It’s very dangerous, they could fly off and injure someone” said the “pint of Best” standing alongside him. “True, true” I mused “but what can you do?”

Actually it is not just on the cars that this display of national fervour has broken out – the England flag is on houses, garages, pubs, shops – nobody wants to miss out on this opportunity to show our support for the boys in Germany. Aside from the chance it gives the more moneyed classes to pass scorn on the masses this overt exhibition of national fervour is quite an interesting phenomenon. Although England is quite a small country the regional differences are considerable. We were at a wedding in Yorkshire last week and although the social milieu was not much different from Surrey it was a world apart. People were naturally friendly to start with. I am a reasonably outgoing person and when I instigate a conversation with a stranger in the “home counties” I am often looked at with surprise and suspicion (Am I mad? Have we been introduced?). In Yorkshire there was no such reserve. Such regional variations of behaviour and attitude are very marked indeed and make it difficult to describe what “Englishness” really is.

The clichéd answer to anyone who points out that we are far from “One Nation” and that social rank differences and regional variations make us English far from homogenous is to say that we all bind together when we need to and that certain things always “unite us”. Such rhetoric is usually illustrated by some reference to when (in 1940) we “stood alone” and how the spirit of the Blitz was the true sprit of Englishness. I’m suspicious of all this because even sport (which you might think could be genuinely unifying) is actually quite strongly delineated along class lines. Rugby Union and Tennis are for the toffs or aspirant toffs of the middle classes. Football and Rugby League are for the worker ants (the ones that fly the flags from their white vans). Cricket and Horse Racing is for both, but a sort of social apartheid rules at the grounds and the racecourses with the middle classes drinking wine in the comfortable enclosures and the hoi polloi swigging lager on the terraces. Oh to be in England!